Belle Vue Ace 1971 - 1978


ALAN Wilkinson's career came to a sudden, disastrous end on Saturday, July 1 1978 when a crash during a match against Swindon at Hyde Road consigned him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
That's a long time ago now but he has battled through some terrible times at his Barrow home to remain close to the hearts of the Belle Vue faithful as one of the club's great captains.

He was never the sleek racer like some of the great Belle Vue heroes but he was still a hero with his raw Cumbrian power and determination which gave him an occasionally bloody-minded determination not to be beaten.

Alan, brought into speedway by Aces' legend Dent Oliver, learned his craft at Rochdale before moving up to Belle Vue. He never rode for anyone else and never wanted to. He wore his Ace on his sleeve and was never slow to take on battles, whether they were on the track, in the pits or in the referee's box. His efforts got him in trouble with the hierarchy on occasions but that commitment to the Belle Vue cause was the reason the fans loved him.

Wilkie has always taken a philosophical view of what happened to him, saying: “I enjoyed every minute of my career, especially at Belle Vue. I was proud to wear the Ace of Clubs on my race jacket and to captain the team.
“Earlier I was in the team that won the championship two years running and I learned a lot about professionalism from Ivan Mauger.

“Thanks to speedway I travelled the world and made friends as far apart as Russia and Australia where I spent three winters. The sport enabled me to live comfortably without having to put in a load of overtime at a factory.

“It is only when you end up in a place like the spinal injuries unit at Southport Hospital, and look at the guy in the next bed, that you realise there is always somebody worse off than you. I had a great life in speedway and there will be only one team for me. Belle Vue.”

He was always known as Wilkie to everyone in speedway but was, in fact, christened John Alan Wilkinson. He was called by his second name because they were already so many Johns in his family.

He was a real sporting all-round as he represented Barrow Schools at rugby league, football and Cricket. He was also a cross country runner and a motor cyclist who excelled in trials and scrambles before becoming a speedway rider.

Alan rode for Rochdale (1970-71) and Belle Vue (1971-1978) for whom he rode 363 matches (1,403 races) scoring a total of 2,528 ½ points. He made 13 appearances for England and also rode for Young England, Great Britain and the British Lions.

Wilkie has always showed tremendous courage since his accident and has been helped by the magnificent support of his wife, Jean. He has never been forgotten by his speedway fans.

He had enjoyed a good season in 1977 and had come out of a poor run of scores on the fateful night of the Swindon match which was 24 hours after he had scored a maximum in a challenge match at Ellesmere Port.

His crash came in the first race of the night after a delay caused by a problem with the starting gate and the race had to be started on the green light. No-one realised at the time just how badly the tough guy skipper had been injured but the news soon spread and Eric Boocock, team manager at the time, revealed in his book how he had gone home and cried when he was told the extent of the injury.

Alan was in Southport hospital for months before being allowed home to Barrow but he has been making the trip down to the Lancashire coastal town on regular occasions ever since for treatment.

He had made his debut for the Aces in a British League match at Wolverhampton on April 2, 1971 when he scored three points and two bonus from four starts. His Hyde Road debut came on April 10 when he landed six paid eight from three outings.

His first heat win came on August 18 in heat two of a Hyde Road match against Sheffield when he headed teammate Chris Pusey, Bob Valentine and Doug Wyer.

Wilkie's first maximum came with 10 plus two against Wimbledon on August 28 but it was July 8, 1972 when he landed his first full maximum against Oxford at Hyde Road. He was an ever present in 1973-74 and he had an unbroken run of 79 British League matches. The teammates on the night he made his debut were Ivan Mauger, Eric Broadbelt, Soren Sjosten, Dave Hemus, Ken Eyre and Mike Hiftle.

Frank Maclean, the late and legendary Belle Vue reporter, wrote of Alan: “He was a blunt and some times sharp talker who always supported his team-mates in a protest but he always found that action expressed more than words.

“Like the time he was at Rochdale and they trailed powerful Crewe Kings by six points after nine close races. Rochdale fought back but nothing short of three points would do in the last race. Everything depended on Paul Tyrer and Ken Moss who coasted to the line confident of scoring the points.
“That was until Paul's chain snapped and hit him on the leg. He dropped onto the centre green and groaned in a away that suggested some of the interest had gone out of Paul's riding for the day. It didn't look so good for Rochdale as the reserves had used up their rides. Prompt action was needed to save the day.
“Alan rushed his own bike to the stranded Tyrer and, ignoring his groans, he bundled him into the saddle and set him off towards the start line with four short words of advice! Paul Tyrer did win the race and Rochdale retained their unbeaten home record.”

Speedway legend Barry Briggs said: “You have to accept that guys are going to be hurt in this game but it was incredible that it happened to Alan. He was a fine opponent, hard as nails, very strong but very fair. You always knew he'd leave enough room – just.”

The club have held benefit meetings for him and Alan Robertson wrote the following fitting words in one of the programmes:
'When the racing is over and the lights are turned out we must never forget riders like Wilkie .. even if we could.'
I have kept in touch with Alan over the years and he is, without a shadow of doubt, the bravest and most courageous man I've ever met.

by Richard Frost